Every athlete strives to stand on an Olympic podium with a hard-earned medal hanging around their neck. Although I’d never been one to kick a ball around or go for a run in my free time, watching these sporting events was the next best thing. The Olympic games would always be a highlight for me. I used to sit in front of the TV and fold laundry while watching numerous skiers attempt the ambitious slalom track, passing through gate after gate at lightning speed. Even the boredom from my dull chores would fade after each commercial break, with my eyes immediately lighting up and following the athletes on the screen.
The idea of the Olympics originates from 776 BC. Athletic festivals between several city-states and kingdoms were held every four years in Olympia, Greece. These games were more religiously centered than the modern Olympics that we know today, held near the Sanctuary of Zeus each time. They not only featured sporting events like running, javelin throws, foot races, wrestling, and horse and chariot races, but also included many spiritual rituals.
Instead of just a few kingdoms, today’s games unite the world. The first “modern” games were held in Athens, Greece in 1896, with 14 nations, 241 athletes, and 43 events. Since then, it’s branched off into the Winter and Summer Olympics, the Paralympics, and the Youth Games. The most recent Pyeongchang Winter Olympics (2018) featured 92 nations, 2,922 athletes, and 102 events. The addition of several events including big air snowboarding, doubles curling, mass start speed skating, and mixed team alpine skiing is not the only significant factor that sets the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics apart from the 22 Winter Olympic games before it. With the rise of the new generation and the increase in diversity and skill that we see in our world today, it is inevitable for these factors to be reflected in this worldwide sporting event.
- The Next Generation
Through the rise of memes and viral trends, the millennials are taking over the web. Several members of this new generation participated in the recent Olympics, bringing their social media with them. The internet soon took hold of two American gold medalists of snowboarding: Chloe Kim and Red Gerard, both only 17 years old. They made headlines for consistently tweeting during Olympic events, oversleeping due to Netflix binging, and cursing on TV. These behaviors could be interpreted as fitting to the millennial stereotype—lazy and relatable. Tim Goh, currently a junior at SAS, understood this, saying that “…being an Olympian does not change you as a person, and you’re still a teenager.” Megan Cabaero, another junior at SAS, also commented that “it redefines what it means to be an Olympian. I think that these millennials are quite inspiring in the sense that they set higher boundaries in a way that even younger people can compete”.
As these gold medalists break the stereotype of polished and proper professional athletes, they start to draw a connection between their incredible athletic abilities and the everyday people that they are.
Similarly, social media networks have undoubtedly affected the coverage of the Olympics. While we can still get the score reports from news networks like NBC, platforms like Twitter allow us to learn more about athletes when they’re not competing. While some may know Scott Moir as one half of the reigning ice dance team from Canada and also one of the most decorated Olympic figure skaters, only accompanied by his ice dance partner, Tessa Virtue, he’s also been turned into an internet sensation. After having several beers at the women’s hockey final, he became the epitome of the passionate Canadian hockey fan. Yelling at the refs and standing up any time he saw the slightest unjust call, he quickly caught the attention and support of the internet as the hot topic of every tweet.
Technology is playing a bigger role in these games than ever before. The prevalence of the internet and social media is changing the Olympics, not only through the millennials who are starting to participate but also in the way it’s covered and its audience.
- “American Beats Out Kwan” No More
In 1998, Tara Lipinski just barely won the gold medal for women’s figure skating over Michelle Kwan. While both were American, MSNBC ran the headline “American Beats Out Kwan” soon afterward. They sent out an apology after realizing the mistake they’re made, but the meaning was clear. Regardless of the fact that Michelle Kwan was born in the United States and went to the Olympics to represent America, MSNBS, like many others, drew a line between appearance and nationality. However, with role models like Michelle Kwan in mind, this year there were 11 Asian Americans representing the United States for the Olympics, which is a significant increase from the 6 Asian Americans that participated in the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014.
A certain divide between nationality and ethnicity is often assumed. Asian Americans are often regarded as the ‘model minority’, in which their ‘positive’ stereotype assumes that they will succeed more than other races simply due to the color of their skin. However, Megan Cabaero pointed out that “we put so much emphasis on ethnicity and nationality when we could honestly just accept that these individuals identify with American principles.” Chloe Kim, in an interview with ESPN, said that “I have this different opportunity because I’m Korean-American, but I’m riding for the States.” She told The Post that every time she answered the question ‘where are you from?’, “It’s never like [her] first answer would be, ‘I’m from Korea,’ or, like, ‘I’m Korean.’ It’s always ‘I’m American’”. When regarding these athletes, it’s important to look at their skill rather than their skin – after all, they’re athletes. They compete in ability, not appearance. Tim Goh said, “I don’t think it really matters how diverse the team is. I think what really matters is that they choose a proper team that can help the country win. In the end, you’re representing your skills under the flag and not your race”.
How their faces look should not be important while competing. It’s important to note that doing something when not many that look like you have done it before takes a considerable amount of courage. With new role models present every four years, it’s clear that we’ll have far more diverse athletes representing the United States, as well as other countries, at the Olympics in the future.
- Raising the Bar
With the progression of time, there’s been a clear surge in the level that these athletes are competing at. In an article in the New York Times called “What If Dorothy Hamill, Tara Lipinski, and Yuna Kim Competed in These Olympics?”, reporters Haeyoun Park and Archie Tse scored past figure skating icons based on the current Olympic figure skating standards. They found that those who had been regarded at revolutionizing and legendary in their time might not even have been qualified for the Olympics today. Not just in terms of figure skating, the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics was the setting of several new records. Nathan Chen became the first figure skater to land five quadruple jumps in one program. Ester Ledeckà became the first athlete ever to compete in both alpine skiing and snowboarding – winning gold medals in both disciplines. Norway, with 39 medals, broke the record for most Olympic medals won at a Winter Olympics.
While human achievement is definitely something that we should celebrate, Megan Cabaero raises a few important questions: “How are the countries training their athletes to surpass everybody else? Do they have to train or ‘break’ the athletes in a way so that they can do these amazing feats that were deemed impossible before?” With this rise in competition and skill level, there have been negative consequences as well. An example of this is the South Korea speed-skating bullying scandal during the Olympics. During the speed-skating team qualifier, two skaters sped on without their third teammate, finishing four seconds ahead. They were quick to shame their third team member on live TV when they got seventh place. After seeing this behavior, South Koreans started a petition to disqualify the two bullying team members, deeming their behavior unacceptable and unrepresentative of their country. Tim Goh said, “I think it’s a cultural thing. In South Korea, it’s just so competitive that every single thing that they do matters. So I really think that this sense of competition is not universal among all countries.” It’s human nature to be disappointed when something that you worked super hard for doesn’t go the way you planned. It’s natural for the South Korean team members to feel disappointed about this outcome, but not to put all the blame on the other team member. Some may believe that the point about the Olympics is to earn medals, but a larger part of it is celebrating and working together as a team.
With each new Winter or Summer Olympics comes a new set of challenges and achievements. In addition to all of these key differences, there’s a plethora more out there, including representation of gay athletes, as well as the Winter Olympic debuts of Ecuador, Eritrea, Kosovo, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Singapore. Our society changes every day, and it’s only fitting that this world’s largest sporting event would reflect these developments as well.